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The vaccine rollout should be extended to 12 to 15-year-olds as the dominant and more transmissible Delta variant is “flying through schools”, a public health expert has said.
The Department of Health has insisted no decisions have yet been made to extend the vaccine programme to younger people, but said they “continue to plan for a range of scenarios”.
NHS trusts in England have been told to prepare for the possible rollout of vaccines to 12 to 15-year-olds from September 6, The Telegraph reported.
We should be offering teens that vaccine so they have that protection before going back into schools
Professor Devi Sridhar, University of Edinburgh
The newspaper said trusts are being told they must have plans ready by 4pm on Friday.
So far, vaccines are being offered to healthy people aged 16 and above, and those considered at-risk in the 12-15 age bracket.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has not yet advised on broadening the rollout further.
NHS Providers the membership organisation for health trusts, said trusts are “ready to move at pace to roll out vaccinations for 12 to 15-year-olds if and when the JCVI approves this decision”.
The number of deaths in England estimated to have been prevented by the Covid-19 vaccine programme has topped 100,000.
Figures published on Thursday by Public Health England estimated that the rollout has directly averted between 102,500 and 109,500 deaths, and more than 82,100 hospital admissions.
Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, said vaccine advisers are being “very cautious” on widening the jabs programme but warned that “waiting and watching costs time”.
Asked about 12 to 15-year-olds being offered jabs, she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Either you’re going to be exposed to Covid without any protection or you can be exposed and have a vaccine.
“And we should be offering teens that vaccine so they have that protection before going back into schools.”
Scotland’s deputy first minister John Swinney said the return of Scottish schools this term had contributed to a rise in cases in the country.
Prof Sridhar said: “I think the issue is they (the JCVI) are being very cautious.
“They’re waiting and watching and I guess the issue with a pandemic is that waiting and watching costs time.”
She said not jabbing this age group now would mean “they’ve lost that window of time”.
Prof Sridhar added: “It’s an emergency situation and we have Delta, which is so infectious. I mean, it’s just flying through schools as we know.
“But not just here, Germany, Denmark, even places like New Zealand and Australia are struggling with Delta compared to the original virus.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Health said: “No decisions have been made on vaccinating 12 to 15-year-olds and it is inaccurate to suggest otherwise.
“Ministers have not yet received further advice from the JCVI on this cohort.
“We continue to plan for a range of scenarios to ensure we are prepared for all eventualities.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told the PA news agency: “From an educational viewpoint we would certainly like to see the vaccine rollout extended to 12 to 15-year-olds, but we understand that this is a decision that needs to be carefully considered and we look forward to the verdict of the JCVI on this matter.”
According to a survey of 10 to 17-year-olds in the UK by the The Children’s Society, 62% of children said they want to get a Covid jab, while 11% said they would not want to.
Meanwhile, returning secondary school and college students in England are being urged to get tested – and vaccinated where possible – to stop coronavirus spreading and minimise disruption to lessons over the autumn.
Ministers have launched a campaign, backed by an Olympic champion and a TV doctor, to persuade parents, secondary school and college students to take part in voluntary asymptomatic Covid-19 testing.
A school leaders’ union has warned that the take-up of twice weekly testing at home was “patchy” during the summer term despite efforts by school staff.
Meanwhile, an executive head of three schools in south Yorkshire has acknowledged that teenagers are likely to be “fed up” with taking Covid tests.
But Andrew Truby, who runs two primary schools in Sheffield and one in Rotherham, urged parents to encourage their children to get tested regularly to enable greater “freedoms” and reduce disruption.
Department for Education (DfE) guidance states that secondary school and college pupils in England should be tested twice on-site on their return, with lateral flow tests carried out between three and five days apart.
Pupils should then continue to test twice weekly at home until the end of September, when the policy will be reviewed.
Attendance advisers are also being recruited by the DfE to work with councils and multi-academy trusts where absence rates are higher than average.
Education unions have called for more action from the Government to ensure schools are kept as safe as possible and education is not disrupted further.
NHS England said more than half a million 16 and 17-year-olds have had their first dose, with efforts continuing to encourage teenagers to get a jab, including revellers at the Reading and Leeds festivals this weekend being offered a vaccine dose at pop-up clinics set up across the two sites.
The Welsh Government has asked that parents test their children for coronavirus at least twice a week regardless of whether they have symptoms or not once the new academic year starts in September.
All 16 and 17-year-olds in Wales have now been offered the vaccine and 12 to 15-year-olds who are clinically vulnerable will also be offered vaccination before term starts.